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Shanelle Gabriel: Interim Executive Director of Urban Word NYC

Urban Word NYC works with young writers and artists across New York City to provide literacy programs, youth development, leadership opportunities, and college prep skills. Through creative workshops like open mic nights and poetry slams, Urban Word NYC has brought the power of writing and language to New York’s youth— spanning across all boroughs and including homeless shelters and alternative incarceration facilities. As the Executive Director, Shanelle gets to work with New York youth to facilitate programming and create partnerships across the city and world.

Can you tell us about the youth that you work with?

We have multiple touch points around the world where we find youth to work with, but most of our students are in New York City. Every generation that we work with is different in their own way, but the one constant is that they all think outside the box. A lot of students in our programs are recommended by their educators— teachers will organize assemblies and identify students that would benefit from our community. We do programming in schools to reach students, and do on-site workshops about storytelling, creative writing, performing hip-hop, and poetry slams. Sometimes, young people join us on the competition side for a workshop and end up sticking around to work with us long-term.

What does your job entail?

I oversee all of the programming and partnerships, including pairing teachers with schools to teach hip-hop and poetry. We believe that students in the classroom should be represented in the curriculum, and that is oftentimes lacking for diverse communities. A lot of the work I do is training educators on how to delve into difficult conversations using poetry. It gives students the freedom to speak their minds and interact with the world around them in a new, artistic way. Everything I do is to try to make amazing things happen for students and young people by providing them with the opportunities they need to succeed. I get to form great partnerships with New York institutions, like working with the library to provide free books to kids, working with the Met, and the botanical gardens. The goal is always to create safe spaces for young people to express themselves and have platforms to change the world.

How do you think the arts improve young lives?

A lot of the work I do is centered around the belief that all stories, no matter what they say or who said them, should be considered literature. The literary canon that a lot of our education is based on is dated— it leaves out a lot of marginalized populations. Urban Word has been very cutting edge with our contemporary literature and has always seen the connection between writing and allowing students to critically analyze the world around them. With the arts and with writing, young people learn that they can be leaders, they can be active in their communities, and they can be a champion for their generation.

What advice do you have for young people who want to make a difference?

Every experience you have informs your ability to succeed. We are often taught to stick to one track in this world, but that way of thinking places limits on who we are and what we can do. Every person brings something unique to every table that they sit at, and we don’t always value those diverse experiences. You don’t need to be an expert with multiple degrees to be taken seriously— all of our experiences, no matter how small, help us to be great at what we do. I believe that if you are blessed with talent you should use it, and everyone is talented somehow.


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